By John Howell
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse had people laughing at a rally to save the Affordable Care Act. The Republicans have already taken the first steps to dismantle it in the wake of Donald Trump’s election and their impending control of both the House and Senate.
Whitehouse wasn’t looking to offer comic relief Sunday afternoon as more than 340 people packed the Johnston Senior Center and another 100 were forced to stand outside because the center meeting room was at fire code capacity. The full Rhode Island congressional delegation that sponsored the rally spoke. Joining them to point out what repeal of Obamacare could mean to Rhode Islanders and how that might affect those on Medicare and Medicaid was Gov. Gina Raimondo and those on the frontlines of delivering and receiving health care.
Whitehouse likened what Republicans are doing to pushing someone out of an airplane and telling them as they are plummeting to the ground that somebody is working on building them a parachute.
“They say ‘trust us,’” he said of Republicans. “Well, no thank you.” Whitehouse wants to see a plan before gutting the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
A number of speakers spoke about popular features of the ACA, often called Obamacare, including the inclusion of children up to age 27 in their family health plan, banning insurance companies from placing lifetime and annual limits on health expenses and the denial of coverage on pre-existing conditions.
“Many of you are now coming into the office to seek preventive care and you give us an opportunity to diagnose and treat problems early because of health insurance,” said Dr. Nitin S. Damle, president of the American College of Physicians that represents 145,000 internal medicine physicians nationally and internationally. He said with repeal of the act, 22 million could become uninsured and 52 million people nationwide and 164,000 Rhode Islanders with pre-existing conditions could be denied coverage.
To cheers and applause, he said, “affordable high quality health care should be a fundamental right of every American just as public education.”
Senator Jack Reed and Congressmen James Langevin and David Cicilline echoed that sentiment.
“It’s a right, not a fringe benefit,” said Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena who hosted the rally.
In his remarks Reed said the percentage of uninsured Rhode Islanders has dropped from 12 percent to 4.5 percent under the act. He said under the act, 100,000 Rhode Islanders who previously didn’t have health insurance are now covered and he fears changes in Medicare and Medicaid and that health insurance premiums “will skyrocket.”
Raimondo likewise was concerned for those who might lose coverage without the act. She said the state is “within a whisper” of universal healthcare coverage, adding, “We want it in Rhode Island and we’re not going backwards. If we make enough noise, they will listen.”
Raimondo urged those seeking to save the act to join with the Protect Our Healthcare Coalition and share their story. The email for the newly formed group is ProtectRIHealth@gmail.com. One of the coalition’s organizers, Linda Katz, co-founder and policy director of the Rhode Island Economic Progress Institute, said the group is not only looking to do what it can to save the act on a national level but also the program in the state.
Joanne McGunnagle, executive director of the Comprehensive Community Action Program (CCAP), found it difficult to imagine what might happen if the ACA is dismantled. McGunnagle was one of several community action program directors to attend the rally. CCAP operates four local clinics serving about 15,000 people.
“This is a basic human need,” McGunnagle said of the services provided by CCAP. Medicaid covers much of the cost of services, but McGunnagle is hearing, like others, that changes could be coming to that program as well as Medicare that would limit coverage.
Gina Rombly, a mother and owner of a small design and video company, told how she and her husband believed they had found affordable health care only to have the insurance company fail, leaving them short of their premiums and stuck with medical bills. It was at that point that the ACA was passed and Rombly who had been diagnosed with stage 3 uterine cancer couldn’t be denied coverage. Now considered cured, Rombly said, “we depend on this [health coverage].”
“Take away the bad parts [of the ACA]. But there’s so much good that it’s done…you can’t just take it away and not have something to replace it with.”
Langevin called the actions of the House and Senate Republicans to dismantle the ACA an “incredible low point” in his legislative career. He was critical of Republicans for not working to amend the legislation.
“We all know ACA isn’t perfect,” he said, “there’s so much we can do to make it better.”
Langevin talked about Evan Huddon of Warwick, who is battling spina bifida and hydrocephalus. He said the Huddons would have never been able to afford the $3 million in medical costs to help Evan without health care.
“It shouldn’t be for just those who can afford it,” he said.
Langevin vowed to save the good elements of ACA.
“This fight isn’t over, it’s just beginning,” he said.